Wildlife Trafficking

Posted on December 30, 2010

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Each year more than a quarter of a million smuggled animals are seized by Brazil’s special police task force. The fight against this illegal trade is one, the authorities say, they are winning.

According to the special environmental police battalion, it has cut the traffic in exotic animals onto the market by 80 per cent compared to last year. They say this  illegal trade, is the third most lucrative criminal activity in Brazil, after the sale of arms and drugs. What Colombia is to cocaine, Brazil has become to the growing illegal-animal trade.

Brazil's Paramilitary Officers

I would have never have thought that cartels would be raking in the cash from animals sales at that level. Local police in Belem, an area close to the mouth of the Amazon delta, have been reported saying that 40 percent of the animal smuggling in Brazil is connected to drug traffickers.

Lieutenant Andre Absolao, division coordinator for the Belem Environmental Police, a branch of Brazil’s military police said: “They stow the animals on the same drug boats and planes heading to America or Europe.

“They are already involved in one illegal activity, so the risk of adding another is considered worth taking.”

It’s so tragic that many of these creatures are put through so much suffering while they are being smuggled. The cost in lives is often on a large-scale, with only a handful surviving.

Although the work law enforcement agents do is fantastic and should be lauded; it is sadly only a tiny part of the bigger picture. The fight against organised crime is a continuous battle which the authorities can only really claim victory for once people stop “ordering” exotic pets and the market folds.

Lieutenant Marcele Figueiredo, from special environmental police battalion, told the French News Agency, AFP: “Blackmarketeers keep an underground trade going, selling a green parrot or a toucan grabbed from its habitat for prices 10 percent those being asked in legal shops. That price difference is what keeps the trafficking going.”

Birds, monkeys, turtles and reptiles are the species frequently seized. Under Brazilian law, hunting and keeping any wild animal in captivity is prohibited, except on a few rare farms with special permits.

All species are potential prey for Brazil’s poachers. Birds can be sold from as little as £6.50 for an ordinary breed to up to nearly £10,000  for a Hyacinth Macaw. The more endangered the animal, the higher its price.

Hyacinth macaw

Most of the primates that are targeted for the pet trade all come from Brazil: marmosets; tamarins; capuchins; squirrel monkeys, titi monkeys. In 2007, data collected by The Primate Specialist Group, found there are 133 species of non-human primate from Brazil and more than a 20 per cent of them are listed as threatened.

squirrel monkeys targeted as pets

RENCTAS, the Portuguese acronym for the The National Network for Combating Wild Animal Trafficking in Brazil,  says animal trafficking generates billions of pounds a year for criminals worldwide. The organisation is a non-profit, environmental group.

It says around 40 percent of the trafficked animals from South America head for Europe or North America. And Brazilian buyers are also thought to fuel this activity. The majority of animals ordered, are for either overseas scientists or pet collectors. But increasingly, they are also being sold domestically as pets or for furs, ornaments and traditional medicines.

Earlier this week  three men in Brazil were convicted  of trying to smuggle flamingos from Sant’Angelo to a city in Paraná in the boot of two cars. Although they were not jailed, they were slapped with a hefty fine – almost a million pounds. In addition to these birds, other animals were also discovered following a further investigation. Shocking pictures of these poor birds crammed into such a small space.

photograph courtesy of Disclosure

Animals seized by Brazil’s federal police are taken to a state sorting centre close to Rio, where they are put in quarantine. Around 8,000 animals a year arrive in the facility, many of them in a horrendous condition.

One vet at the centre, Daniel Marchesi told AFP: “It’s really a problem. The ones that do make it to the centre are the lucky ones. Half the animals smuggled die in transit.

“They are transported in awful conditions. They’re kept in tiny closed boxes with little air. They go for hours without eating or drinking.

“There is a huge diversity of species in Brazil, and some very beautiful animals which people want to own. And it’s in the Brazilian culture to have all sorts of exotic animals at home.”

Experts at RENCTAS say animal trafficking is sucking the life out of the Amazon at a time when the rain forest is already facing an alarming increase in deforestation.

Dener Giovanini, executive director of RENCTAS said: “”Brazilian authorities have never been very concerned about the animal trade, and now it is showing.

“Although there are laws on the books against trafficking in animals, they are rarely enforced, and only a fraction of smuggled animals are caught — and most of those are dead by the time they are found.

“What we are seeing is a still-unknown level of damage to the most important ecosystem in the world,” he said. “You cannot drain the Amazon of its life and expect it to keep functioning normally.”

Authorities say they are trying to curb animal trafficking through more frequent raids on the docks and at airports. Although animal seizures have increased – officials concede they are catching only a fraction of the animal smugglers and their live cargo.

The Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network (TRAFFIC) estimates the entire trade at tens of billions of pounds a year. Interpol sets the illegal trade between ten to 15 billion pounds a year, second only to drugs.

Critics say trafficking is growing in part because of lax enforcement of existing laws; but in Brazil where poverty is rife in some areas, it’s the only way some people make a living to feed their families.

Environmental police estimate that 70 percent of Belem’s residents keep at least one illegal pet. Police say they are unwilling to go out and fine an entire city, it’s the bigger fish they want to catch. They hope by raising awareness about illegal wildlife smuggling people will be better educated and pass this knowledge on.

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Posted in: Organised crime